Clinton High School students arrived at school Thursday morning just time to investigate a crime.
For NC DNA Day, scientists Dr. Elizabeth “Liz” Sacho from NC State University and Dr. Robert “Bob” Immormino from UNC-Chapel Hill traveled to Clinton and kicked off the Dark Horses day with a fun and fictional crime — the case of the missing mascot — that needed to be solved.
Before pointing the finger at any one suspect, Dr. Liz and Dr. Bob first discussed what DNA is with the students and explained that forensic scientists depend greatly on DNA evidence when attempting to solve a case.
From their discussion, the students learned that DNA can be found from sources such as saliva, hair, blood, urine, and even ear wax.
To show students how DNA can be gathered from these sources, the scientist had the students collect their own saliva and extract their own DNA, an informative hands-on activity that was a favorite among the students.
“I think this DNA activity is great because it is their DNA that they’re working with and they get to keep it if they want,” said Matthew Thornton, Clinton High’s science department chairman and the one who sent in the application for his students to have this unique learning experience, one that only 100 high schools in the state receive each year.
Once students saw how DNA can be extracted, Dr. Liz and Dr. Bob explained to them the details of DNA fingerprinting, or how an individual’s DNA is analyzed in order to identify them.
Since all people are unique — a complete DNA profile is unique one to 100 billion — the scientists noted the differences that show up in DNA, differences that determine a person’s gender, hair and eye color, and blood type, all of which can help identify a suspect in a crime.
Students then had the opportunity to see and touch electrophoresis gel, a jello-like substance which is used as a matrix to analyze DNA.
Now armed with all this information, the students, ready to solve the mysterious case of the missing mascot, formed groups with each group receiving one suspect’s DNA which they had to read and determine if it matched the DNA found at the crime scene.
When each group reported their findings, it seemed that there were two suspects whose DNA matched. “This is good,” said Dr. Bob of the students’ mistake, “because this is a real-life situation.” Dr. Liz then explained that when this kind of thing happens in a real investigation the scientists have to go back and reanalyze the DNA.
After taking a closer look at the DNA samples, the students discovered that there was indeed only one culprit — the drum major.
With the crime solved, the scientists then took questions from the students and shared with them details about their real scientific work.
“I just love science because there is still a lot of questions, a lot of things we don’t know,” shared Dr. Liz, adding that her specific field of study is biophysics and that she is involved in research about better understanding cancer which will hopefully help doctors better treat cancer patients in the future.
Dr. Liz also mentioned that she gets to use interesting equipment in her research. “I get to shoot lasers at things and I get paid for it. It’s fun.”
“I like science because I like solving the problem, the mystery,” said Dr. Bob. “I study how different proteins in bacteria ‘talk’ to each other.”
The scientists also talked with the students about studying science and pursuing a career like theirs.
“We both took as many science classes as we could in high school,” explained Dr. Bob, adding that as a youth he also took advantage of science camps during the summer.
“A background in biology or chemistry is needed, so take those classes and then see where your particular interests lie and go after that,” Dr. Liz suggested.
Whether or not the students choose to become scientists, Clinton High School officials are grateful that the students have this kind of opportunity to be exposed to science and to better understand its real world application.
“We’re excited to have these kinds of hands-on activties at our school. Anytime we can get real world experiences for our children it enhances the curriculum that we’re teaching and makes it relevant,” said Dr. Linda Brunson, Clinton High’s curriculum coach.
“It has timed out so perfectly. It goes well with what we have been studying in class for the past week and a half,” agreed Thornton. “All that they are talking about is in our objectives. The kids have to really be able to read DNA and determine which suspect did the crime (for their coursework).”
And the scientists agree, seeing their visit to Clinton High and other high schools across the state as a way to enhance high schoolers’ scientific knowledge and to raise awareness about the careers possible in the various science fields.
“I was never exposed to anything like this in high school,” remarked Dr. Liz whose has been visiting high schools as part of NC DNA Day for two years now. “So the fact that I get to come and share with kids about science and about what I do is fantastic…I feel it’s really important, especially given the education budget cuts.”
In addition to learning more about DNA and the forensic sciences, Dr. Liz hopes that, as a result of their visit, Clinton High students will have a “better awareness of the possibilities and careers that science offers” while Dr. Bob hopes the students gained “more knowledge of all that DNA is used for” from their presentation.
As for Thornton, he hopes that the scientists’ visit lit a spark and caught the interest of his students. “Anytime that we can do something that gets them excited about science it’s great.”
For more information about NC DNA Day, visit www.ncdnaday.org.
Lauren Williams can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 117 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.